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Canada using Inuit as political tool at summit, critics say

Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak speaks with economic development minister Peter Taptuna, rights, before the start of a sitting of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly, Dec. 7, 2009. The seats covers and side covers under the arms are sealskin.

Chris Windeyer/Nunatsiaq News/Chris Windeyer/Nunatsiaq News

Canada is being accused of using Inuit people to gain sympathy in its battle to protect the declining non-aboriginal seal hunt.

Critics ranging from Europe's Parliament to the Canadian animal-welfare movement say the seal-heavy theme of this week's G7 finance ministers gathering in Iqaluit is a deliberate blurring of the lines between traditional hunting by Inuit, who face many economic hardships, and the Atlantic commercial seal hunt.

Canada opposes a European Union seal-product ban that will take effect later this year.

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"The Canadians are callously using the plight of traditional and indigenous communities to overturn the ban and in doing so allow Canada to continue to kill 300,000 baby seals a year," said Arlene McCarthey, a British member of the European Parliament who played a lead role in negotiating the EU ban.

"Instead of organizing stunts, the Canadians should accept the fact that the EU has passed this law," she told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail.

The Globe reported Tuesday that Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak and federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the G7 meeting should be used to counter international criticism of the seal hunt.

The Premier confirmed that Nunavut officials involved in the Feb. 5-6 summit will wear seal, and the ministers will be treated to a "country" dinner on Saturday that will feature seal and other meats and fish from the territory.

Supporting the seal hunt plays well with voters in Nunavut and Atlantic Canada.

Ms. Aglukkaq won the Nunavut riding from the Liberals in the last election, and is said to be a strong advocate behind the scenes for the seal issue.

Sheryl Fink, the director of the Canadian seal campaign for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, notes that as far back as 2001, a Foreign Affairs e-mail talked about playing "the Nunavut Inuit card as leverage" in trade negotiations.

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"We know they're trying to play up this Inuit thing and portray all commercial hunting in Canada as Inuit hunting," she said, describing the non-aboriginal hunt as much larger and more wasteful. "It is frustrating for us when we see lines getting blurred between the two because it is a deliberate tactic on the part of the government."

While the EU ban includes an Inuit exemption, the Inuit are challenging the law in court. They say the exemption is not clear and the ban tarnishes the image of their cultural practices.

The European Union office in Ottawa declined comment, as did several other embassies. Some European diplomats, speaking on condition they not be named, were bemused.

"Once we knew the venue, we kind of knew what would be on the menu," said one diplomat. "It raises half an eyebrow."

Diplomats from G7 countries said they were not informed of the provocative menu. Canada never really explained its reasons for holding a meeting of powerful finance ministers in a remote location where cell phone and Internet coverage is spotty and there are not enough hotel rooms for full-sized delegations.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has suggested the location was chosen for its natural beauty and because it allows smaller, more informal discussions. However, foreign observers say they assume it was also chosen because the Canadian government regularly showcases Arctic sovereignty and northern resource development.

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A source from at least one European country stressed that its finance minister is excited to be going to Iqaluit.

Another European diplomat said it's not clear why Iqaluit was chosen.

"Why put that group up there? It eludes my logic, but we all have the delicacy not to ask that question too loudly," said the source.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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